The latest Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times political poll makes for a depressing read for Fianna Fail. In the wake of a number of blunders by the Fine Gael and Labour coalition, Michael Martin and the rest of the Fianna Fail party must be wondering what they need to do to get a boost in the polls. Needless to say, hours after the poll the public soul searching by some of Martin’s rivals has already begun.

How is it that Sinn Fein gain in popularity, while Fianna Fail’s support continues to stagnate?

Is the party out of touch? Is Martin the wrong man for the job? Did the collapse of the Celtic Tiger fundamentally destroy the base of what has been the most popular party in the history of the State?

Perhaps the answer is a lot simpler. I read a great interview in the FT today with Timothy Bell, one of Margaret Thatcher’s main advisers (registration required, but free to read.)  There is a fantastic quote in the article:

“When you’re in opposition the only argument you’ve got is that it’s time for a change,” he says.

This is what makes the next election in the UK so interesting, he says. “Whatever happens there’s going to be a change. So nobody’s going to be able to do ‘it’s time for a change’ and nobody’s going to be able to do ‘it’s no time for a change’.”

The problem for Fianna Fail is that they are essentially seen as part of the establishment, whether they are in opposition or not.  Telling the electorate that they are the party to deliver change simply won’t wash with the public, no matter who the leader is at the moment.  The fundamental reason for Sinn Fein’s gradual rise in popularity is that more people are seeing them as the only real alternative.

This is also what will make the next election so interesting to watch. It would be in Sinn Fein’s best interests to stay out of Government for as long as possible.  They will be faced with a real gamble – take the reins of power and potentially see their popularity crumble like a castle with foundations built on sand over five years.  Or alternatively hold off for the same period to underline their position as the only political alternative, whilst praying that the continued turnaround in Ireland’s economic fortunes does not lead to the public repaying Fine Gael with their loyalty.

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Piaras Kelly
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